Atlas Shrugged’s Long Journey to the Silver Screen - The Objective Standard

In January 1, 1982, Ayn Rand began the new year by following a time-honored tradition of her native Russia; she began work on the major project she planned to accomplish that year: a teleplay for her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Unfortunately, this teleplay, the last thing Rand wrote, was incomplete when she died that March. Although this was the high point in her nearly decade-long involvement in producing a film version of Atlas, it marked only the midway point in her magnum opus’ fifty-four year journey to the silver screen.

According to Jeff Britting, archivist for the Ayn Rand Institute, this journey began shortly after Atlas was published.1 In the late 1950s, at least one report in Daily Variety, the film industry’s newspaper, suggested that the book would soon be made into a film. Considering the success of Rand’s The Fountainhead, first as a novel and then as a film, such a suggestion, even if purely speculative, was not far-fetched given Hollywood’s long history of procuring literary properties and turning them into blockbusters. However, there was a major impediment to transforming Atlas into a film: Ayn Rand herself.

It is well known and oft reported that Rand essentially disowned the film version of The Fountainhead because one line of dialogue was cut from Howard Roark’s climactic courtroom speech. Although some critics might chalk this up to petty hubris, Britting notes that Rand had good reason for her reaction: She felt betrayed by director King Vidor and producer Henry Blanke. She thought that she had built a good working relationship with them during the production. She often consulted with the two men and even rewrote parts of the script to suit the production—all in the spirit of artistic cooperation. Their cutting of an important line from the story’s climactic speech without her knowledge betrayed Rand’s trust and left a bitter taste in her mouth regarding Hollywood.

Given this souring experience, Rand would not even consider selling the rights to Atlas without attaching certain conditions—conditions that, by Hollywood standards, were extraordinary. According to Ayn Rand’s agent, Perry Knowlton,

She said she’s never going to sell anything to a film company that doesn’t allow her the right to pick the director, the screenwriter, and to edit in the editing room. And, of course, a lot of people make contracts thinking they can get this type of deal from the backers, but never could. It became one of the problems that she never got over, but she refused to give up her way of doing it because she felt she was right, which she was. She didn’t like what was done with The Fountainhead, and therefore, she was trying to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.2

It would be nearly fifteen years after the publication of the novel before Rand would be approached by a Hollywood veteran whom she thought able and willing to produce the film in accordance with her conditions and standards.

Albert S. Ruddy, a longtime admirer of the novel, was coming off his successful production of The Godfather when he contacted Knowlton about buying the film rights to Atlas. Knowlton was not optimistic about the prospect but told Ruddy he could try to convince Rand that he would do the book justice. Remarkably, by his own account and others, Ruddy did more than thoroughly charm Rand; he demonstrated that he understood at root how the film adaptation needed to be approached.

She wanted to know in a moment what I wanted to do with the movie. I said, “Ayn, you’ve written one of the great thrillers, one of the great love stories—the greatest part for a woman I have read in contemporary literature.” She said, “Exactly, darling. That’s exactly the way I see it. That’s all I ever wanted it to be.”3

Rand, according to Ruddy, was further taken with the producer because she liked The Godfather and saw his approach to that film—its epic size and involving storyline—as similar to what was needed for a film version of Atlas Shrugged.

Ruddy, seeing the thriller and romance aspects as the concretization of the novel’s philosophy, wanted to focus on these elements of the story, with the general plot arc being Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden coming together to save their respective companies while simultaneously trying to figure out who or what is causing the nation’s other producers to disappear. His plan was to produce a big-budget feature film running two-and-one-half to three hours.

Unfortunately, although Ruddy had developed a good relationship with Rand (he even had a proposed cast list that she approved of), the producer soon discovered that network and film executives were never going to grant Rand the control she demanded.4 Ultimately, unable to deliver on his promise of meeting her conditions, the two parted company, amicably.

The next chapter of the Atlas film saga began in the late 1970s when Hollywood father-son producing team Henry and Michael Jaffe secured the rights to produce the novel as a miniseries on NBC at the behest of then network chief and Rand admirer Paul Klein. The Jaffes were willing to guarantee Rand final approval on both the script and the cast. But they had an additional condition of their own: Rand could not merely disapprove the script. As Michael Jaffe explained, “We created for the NBC deal an affirmative obligation on the part of Ayn to deliver an approved script. In other words, she was free to disapprove the script, but she wasn’t free to leave it there. If she couldn’t find a writer to fix it to her satisfaction, then at the end of the day she was obliged to fix it.”5

Although it is unknown what Rand thought about this condition, Jaffe thought it offered a good, workable solution—and would have guaranteed that the project would not be mired in arguments over the script:

It was great for us, because what was critical in the marketplace was that we knew we could get a script, and she had screenwriting experience and had produced screenplays. She wasn’t a foreigner to the medium, and clearly, she had the ability to do it. I think if the NBC project had gone ahead, we would have gotten the movie made at NBC and she would not have had to write it herself.6

The NBC project fell apart in 1979 when Fred Silverman took the helm of the network. He reportedly “hated” the project and summarily canceled it.7 Still eager to make the movie, the Jaffes regrouped, sold the project to Turner Broadcasting System, and began development with Tom Selleck slated to star as Hank Rearden.

During this effort, Rand worked with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant on the script, and although she described Silliphant’s script as “too naturalistic,” the two reportedly got along well. According to Michael Jaffe, Silliphant was in “awe” of Rand, and, he believes, if the project had gone forward, the two would have been able to hammer out a good script, with Rand taking the responsibility for condensing John Galt’s four-hour speech to less than seven minutes.8

However, although the Jaffes tried a number of routes—including NBC, Turner, CBS, and then feature production—they ultimately were unable to pull together the project for specific reasons that are unclear.

According to Michael Jaffe, the main stumbling block that prevented him and his father from making the picture in the 1970s and early 1980s was Rand’s insistence on including the key philosophical ideas and getting them right:

[I]f she had stayed out of it and let them just make the movies, take the best of the plot and not be whipsawed by all the philosophy, they’d be great stories. But it was the whipsawing that always killed it. It was the sense that the stories were too full of philosophy, and the people who controlled the rights to her stories would never let you just go out and make the movie.9

(Although one can to some extent sympathize with a filmmaker’s desire to “just go out and make the movie,” to do justice to a literary property, one must dramatize its essence. In the case of Atlas, this requires including certain key ideas. With this in mind, it is little wonder that Rand and, later, her heirs, were wary about turning over her literary creations to just any Hollywood producer.)

The final chapter in Ayn Rand’s direct involvement with a film version of the novel came shortly thereafter. In 1981, according to Rand’s friend and student, Harry Binswanger, she decided to write a teleplay herself and arrange for private fund-raising through her fans.10 This attempt, as mentioned earlier, ended suddenly with her death in March 1982, at which point she had completed only about one-third of the script.

Shortly after Rand died, Michael Jaffe reinitiated his effort, this time with Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. Jaffe and Snider purchased an option to develop the film from Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff. But this effort, too, would come quickly to a halt. As Jaffe later explained, Peikoff “had huge problems with [the script]” and wanted the same kind of control that Rand had demanded.11

In 1992, investor and Rand admirer John Aglialoro entered the scene, paying Peikoff more than $1 million for the rights to produce the film with “full creative control.” Aglialoro began work with a number of screenwriters (including Peikoff’s ex-wife, Cynthia) to produce a workable script. According to the New York Times, these scripts failed for a number of reasons, including being science fiction oriented or reducing the characters to caricatures. Again, the lack of a workable script stalled the effort.

In 1999, Albert S. Ruddy, who had vowed when he and Rand parted company in the 1970s that he would one day make the film, came back on the scene. After regaining his option from Aglialoro, he made a deal with TNT for a four-hour miniseries. However, fate struck the dream project a double whammy with a production delay due to a threatened screen actors’ strike followed by the merger of Turner with AOL, which caused the project to be canceled. Finally, world events dealt Ruddy’s last attempt its fatal blow. In the wake of 9/11, Ruddy, according to the New York Times, concluded that films with an “apocalyptic” theme were not very popular. After decades of on-and-off efforts to produce the picture, he abandoned the project.

The next team to pick up the Atlas Shrugged banner was Ray producers Howard and Karen Baldwin, who optioned the rights from Aglialoro while running Crusader Entertainment for Phil Anschutz. The Baldwins eventually left Crusader (reportedly because Anschutz, a Christian, found out that Rand was an atheist) and attempted to shepherd the film on their own, eventually making a deal with Lionsgate to produce a two-hour film with Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) writing and directing and Angelina Jolie starring as Dagny. Despite the press this attempt generated, it too fell through for reasons that remain unclear.

Aglialoro then decided to take the reins himself. With his option on the adaptation of the novel about to run out and with traditional studio support clearly not forthcoming, he set out to produce the film with the help of Harmon Kaslow as a three-part independent feature. (Ironically, as John Tamny observed in Forbes, Aglialoro’s situation paralleled that facing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.)12

Aglialoro solved his long-standing script problems by adapting the novel himself with Brian Patrick O’Toole (Evilution) and began filming in June 2010 with Paul Johannson directing (and playing John Galt), Taylor Schilling (Mercy) playing Dagny Taggart, and Grant Bowler (True Blood) playing Henry Rearden. The five-week production was lensed in Los Angeles and Colorado for a reported $15 million and is set to premiere on April 15, 2011.

With the opening of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, one of the longest journeys ever taken by a twentieth-century novel from page to screen is about to end. What that end will bring—box office success, parts 2 and 3, increased interest in Rand’s works—is yet to be seen.

Adapting ‘Atlas’: Ayn Rand’s Own Approach

Perhaps the most difficult part of bringing Atlas Shrugged to the screen has been writing a filmable script that is true to the spirit of the novel. Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar winner for his brilliant In the Heat of the Night, could not do it, and neither could numerous others who tried. Transferring a thousand-page novel to screen—whether for film or television—requires omitting, changing, and conflating much material. And doing that without destroying the meaning of the novel or alienating the film’s intended audience is a difficult and daunting task.

From the beginning, Ayn Rand understood what in essence needed to be done. In his essay “Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film,” Jeff Britting notes that during Albert S. Ruddy’s aborted attempt to purchase the rights, Rand summarized the primary points that had to be illustrated from each of the book’s sections:

Part I: The John Galt Line—The search for the Inventor of the Motor—Wyatt’s Torch

Part II: The Moratorium on Brains (Directive 10-289)—The tunnel catastrophe—Dagny and “frozen train,” her flight, her crash

Part III: “Atlantis” & Galt—The progressive destruction of Chapter V (the copper wire), Dagny-Galt affair—the Siege of Rearden Steel, & Rearden quitting—Galt’s speech—Galt’s arrest—the torture scene—the rescue. The Finale in Atlantis.

According to Britting, this fundamental outline held throughout the various versions of the project as long as Rand was alive, and it was highly adaptable to various formats because it provided the essentials that had to be in a film or television version regardless of its proposed length.*

Even more intriguing than Rand’s outline is her own script. Wherever she thought it was necessary to better fit the story to the screen medium, she did not hesitate to change or add details, incidents, and characters to dramatically and visually illustrate the theme of the novel. For instance, in the novel, the backlash against Rearden Metal is a subtle development, starting with Jim Taggart’s denouncement, Rearden’s family’s dismissal, and finally, the government’s disinformation campaign. In Rand’s script, the backlash is more overt with picketers at the foundry the night of the first pouring and a “hippie” character egging on the protestors. Rand also introduces the idea of extensive television news coverage—absent in the novel—reporting on the country’s rejection of Rearden Metal and visually depicting the collapse of industry. Where necessary, she wrote new dialogue that presented the theme more overtly, for instance changing the opening by adding new lines that explained the meaning of the giant calendar and that featured the bum telling Eddie, who expresses unease about it, “your days are numbered.” Rand also eliminated the flashback of the oak tree—focusing, instead on a world in decay and despair, which would come to a crescendo (one presumes) at the end of the film when the electricity went out in New York and civilization collapsed.

Endnotes

* Britting, “Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 195–217.

1 Jeff Britting, Telephone interview with the author, January 27, 2011.

2 Scott McConnell, ed., 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand (New York: NAL Trade, 2010), p. 312.

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3 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 507.

4 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 315.

5 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 515.

6 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 515.

7 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 516.

8 McConnell, 100 Voices, pp. 517–18.

9 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 514.

10 McConnell, 100 Voices, p. 602.

11 Kimberly Brown, “Ayn Rand No Longer Has Script Approval,” New York Times, January 14, 2007, accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/movies/14brow.html.

12 John Tamny, “A Name to Know in 2011: Atlas Shrugged Producer John Aglialoro,” Forbes, December 12, 2010, accessed at http://blogs.forbes.com/johntamny/2010/12/12/a-name-to-know-in-2011-atlas-shrugged-producer-john-aglialoro/.

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